Sunday night, after the long trail ride (Part II Chapter 19)
After taking care of the horses for the night, the teens have a late supper and stumble to bed. Taïga remembers her promise to Teddy earlier the same morning but hesitates calling Granny so late. I’ll just text her to call me back tomorrow morning… She yawns and pushes “send”. Good deed done… But she doesn’t have the time to put the cell in the drawer before it rings.
‘Hi Granny! I thought you were asleep! … No, nothing… Everything’s all right. Yeah… Really? They’ve set the date? … Gosh… When? … The 22nd of August? Is that a special date? … OK… Aha… Mmm… She’ll love that! … Do you think I can bring someone? … I just thought… OK… Exchange students? From Canada?’ Taïga smiles to herself, listening to Granny talk about Buddy and Peaches. Rowan has apparently put his plan in motion, telling Granny a white lie…
She bites her lip and lowers her voice, ‘Well… I need that super elixir against spots you told me about, Granny… No, it’s not for me, it’s for Teddy… Yeah, Teddy Vargas… From Moonlight Falls, Granny, I told you about him… Yes, Derek’s brother… Great! Tomorrow? … That will be perfect! I’ll keep an eye out for the postman in a couple of days! … I love you too, Granny! And hug Missy and Rowan from me, will you? … Bye…’ She smiles to herself.
‘Who’s getting married?’ Chase looks at her in the mirror.
‘My great Aunt Missy. She’s kind of “ancient” so it’ll be a quiet ceremony. I guess.’
‘Oh. Well, marriages are always fun!’
Taïga just nods and buffs her pillow before lying down. ‘Knowing Missy it could be the party of the year!’ She stares at the shadows dancing on the ceiling. ‘I’m happy for her but it will feel kind of empty at Bayou Oaks without Missy. And Granny seems happy for her sister but I know she’ll be so lonely.’
She thinks of how brave Granny was when François Lambert died in a car crash many years ago*, only crying at night when she thought no one could hear her… She yawns, unsuccessfully fighting sleep, ‘I hope she’ll find someone to love one day…’
The night seems to be extremely short, and Taïga doesn’t feel up to start on Teddy’s program to lose weight the following morning. But Teddy is up and eager to go jogging for a half hour before school, and he practically drags Taïga out of bed.
They set off across the yard and turn into the forest on a trail Taïga knows from riding there. Before long, Teddy’s enthusiasm wears off, and soon he’s panting and slacking off… Taïga stops and pulls out her earphones. She’s secretly happy Teddy had to stop, she’s not as fit herself as she thought!
‘Why don’t we do some stretching first, and then run some more?’
Teddy just nods and wipes his brow. ‘Jeez. This is harder than I thought.’
They do some easy stretching exercises to get their muscles warm and slowing their heartbeat.
‘OK. I think we’ll have to get going now, or we’ll be late for school.’
They set off again, backtracking towards APYR. Teddy catches up with Taïga, ‘Could we slow down a bit? We set off like jack rabbits!’
‘Hey! You were the eager one…’
Chase overheard Taïga on the phone Sunday night, and when the elixir arrives a couple of days later she wants in on the experiment.
‘But it’s only one dose.’ Taïga protests, ‘Maybe it won’t work if you share it…’
Teddy interrupts her, ‘It’s OK, Taïga. We’ll try it. Both of us.’
‘Yeah.’ Chase nods impatiently and Taïga holds out the glass with the elixir, making the translucent liquid swirl, leaving oily traces on the glass. ‘OK. Just drink this, and then,’ She takes out a small tube of paste from her pocket with her left hand and holds it up, ‘just coat each… spot with some of this paste.’
Teddy takes the glass and pinches his nose before eagerly swallowing half the elixir. ‘Here,’ he hands the rest to Chase with a grimace. ‘Good luck…’
He takes the tiny tube, and vanishes into the bathroom. Chase drinks. ‘Yuk. I guess this must be highly effective.’ She grimaces, ‘It tastes like fish oil, but worse.’
Taïga takes the glass, recoiling from the foul scent. The smell of fish oil is overpowering, but she also knows it’s only to hide the real ingredients, much worse… ‘Yeah. Granny always said fish oil’s good for health, and when she was a child, she had to take a spoonful a day!’ she adds cheerily.
‘Poor her!’ Chase looks thoughtful, ‘Did she have spots?’
Taïga doesn’t have time to answer, as Teddy interrupts them. ‘I’ll kill the first one who laughs.’
The girls swirl around and gapes at Teddy. His face is covered in light green fluorescent polka dots.
‘Ohmygod! Is the paste radioactive?’ Taïga reaches out but Teddy withdraws.
‘They will only last for a couple of hours,’ he adds sheepishly. It says so here.’ He shows some black print on the tube.
Chase takes it tentatively and smells it, staring at Teddy all the time. ‘Roses!?!’ She inhales deeply, ‘I love roses! They’re my favorite.’ she adds dreamily and vanishes into the bathroom…
Teddy chuckles as he and Taïga looks after her, ‘Roses? I thought it smelled like hot chocolate…’
‘Hot chocolate, huh?’
Teddy grins, ‘Well, I guess I’ll better hide in my room until I don’t look like an ad for something bred in Tchernobyl anymore!’
Taïga laughs. ‘I hope you’ll be fit to be seen tomorrow morning! We’ll go jogging even if you look like a Pokémon!’
Teddy just laughs and hurries off towards the stairs. Taïga watches him vanish. Granny knows what she’s doing – I just hope there was enough for both of them…
Taïga and Teddy continue jogging in the morning, and after school they meet at Swole on Fitness, Appaloosa’s gym.
Taïga is a hard personal trainer, ‘Get up again! You can do this! Another 5 minutes and you’re done for today!’
‘I can’t do this. Derek runs, do you hear me?’ Teddy pants, ‘He runs for hours. I can’t even walk on this damn thing!’
Taïga chews on her lip. She can easily imagine Derek running on the treadmill, muscular legs pumping, sweating… She shakes her head to get rid of the disturbing image.
‘You aren’t Derek. And you must stop comparing yourself with him all the time! I believe in you! Now get going!’
Teddy mutters, but continues. Walking… ‘That’s great, Teddy! But let’s try a little faster!’
And as the weeks pass, Teddy gets a hang on how the treadmill works and his efforts start showing…
‘Good! Don’t stop! Keep the pace!’
But Taïga won’t let him get away with just losing weight, she wants him to have a go at the torture machines downstairs.
‘You want muscles? Well, pump iron!’
Teddy’s on the brim of giving up, but he clenches his teeth and pushes on…
‘So why don’t you take it off?’
‘OK. As you like.’ Taïga unzips her hoodie, ‘I’ll go take a shower, being a personal trainer is exhausting!’ She adds over her shoulder, ‘But I’m sure you can see the muscles now! You said it yourself that you felt pumped!’
Teddy waits till he hears the door to the women’s shower close behind Taïga. Then he quickly rips off his T-shirt and checks himself out in the mirror. There’s no six-pack – yet! But he likes his new body and the progress he’s made…
He turns this way and that, flexing his biceps, ‘Hi Linn! I’m Teddy, Derek’s brother…’
The elixir is working, but as Taïga feared, not a 100%. She was a little nervous Teddy would be disappointed, but he seems satisfied.
‘Compared with a month ago this is great! If I keep eating healthy food and doing sports, my skin will be clean in time for prom! And if it isn’t I’ll ask Chase for some of her foundation!’
Taïga gapes, ‘Would you?’
Chase is also doing great, her skin has improved a lot and one of the girls at school, Benni Hennessey, has taught her how to use foundation to cover up her scars.
Taïga has organized a surprise for Chase and Teddy – an appointment at Shear Perfection Salon for a makeover!
Chase was scared to death about getting her hair cut, but finally resigned herself to it, ‘I can’t get much uglier, can I?’ The result is really good, and Chase can’t stop looking at herself in the mirror. ‘I can’t believe it’s me!’
‘Girls, come over here and have a look,’ the shop assistant beckons them over. ‘We’ve just received the prom dresses and I thought you’d like to give me a hand hanging them up – and maybe even try one… or two…’
While Teddy’s upstairs getting his hair cut, the girls help with the dresses.
‘Are you sure it fits me?’ Chase turns this way and that, making the yellow and purple dress swirl.
‘You look perfect. You’re so tall and slim everything fits!’ Taïga reassures her. ‘You don’t even need high heels!’
‘Thank God! I can’t walk with heels anyway – I look like a man in disguise!’
Chase puts on a fabulous pair of purple heels, and they both laugh as she walks holding on to the wall and waving her arms.
Teddy didn’t want to cut his hair neither. He didn’t even want to take off his beanie at first, but when Chester Ochoa threatened to just take his scissors and cut around it giving him a pudding-bowl hairstyle, he finally obliged… And now it disturbs him to have Chester Ochoa rummaging around, massaging his head. Actually it feels good, and that’s what disturbs him.
‘Just do whatever you want,’ he mutters, ‘But not too short!’
He concentrates on Sophia Martingale and Honey Darnell who’re waiting for their turn to get their hair done. Nice ass for such an old lady…
Finally Chester Ochoa declares he’s finished and with a dramatic gesture pulls off Teddy’s gown and spins him around on the chair. ‘Very nice indeed.’ He taps his teeth with the scissors and smiles, ‘Maybe we should add a little more styling gel…’
‘I’m fine, Sir. Thanks a lot.’ Teddy backs away and hurries downstairs before Chester can add something more to his already -in his taste- over styled hair.
He stops at the bottom of the stairs and looks around for Taïga and Chase, but the shop seems to be empty. Suddenly there’s a crash, followed by giggling.
‘I told you I shouldn’t wear heels!’ Chase emerges, hanging on Taïga, wobbling on wonderful Jimmy Choo’s.
Teddy clears his throat, ‘So what do you think?’ he asks nervously.
‘Gosh! You’re so cute!’
I don’t want to be cute! I want to be handsome!
Taïga doesn’t say anything, she just gapes. ‘Wow! Aren’t you good-looking! The girls will stand in queue for prom!’
He looks at his feet and smiles to himself. ‘So are you?’
Chase breaks in, ‘And me? What do you think about me? I got this dress for free!’
Teddy looks her over. ‘You’ve got nice legs. You should wear a skirt more often, it suits you!’
Chase lights up, ‘Thank you!’
‘Wait for me, guys!’ Chase straps her old sandals and runs after Teddy and Taïga. ‘We’re not going home already, are we?’
‘Of course not! Let’s go to the Waterhole!’ Taïga can’t wait to show her friends off to the others…
The following weeks pass faster than Taïga would have thought. School, homework, training with Teddy and schooling of the horses and then finally the weekends, with long hikes in the countryside…
She has finally succeeded in locating Derek with the help of the ring he left her – and a blood spell. It’s good to know he’s made it safely to Al Simhara, but being able to trace him also means her protection spell doesn’t work anymore. But the dangers are past him now, they just have to wait for him to come home again…
‘It seems easy enough!’ VJ leans nonchalantly on the fence, watching Taïga elegantly mounting Sweet Thing. ‘Can’t be difficult hiking around on the back of a stupid animal.’ He leers at Taïga, ‘If a girl can do it…’
Taïga just glares at him and turns Sweet Thing around with one hand. VJ looks at her retreating figure chewing on a straw, ‘I used to love cowboy films when I was a kid. Those horses galloped all the time, while you just…’
‘OK. I’ve heard enough.’ Tate holds out Cloud’s reins towards VJ and gestures to him to come over.
VJ looks smugly over his shoulder before pointing at himself, ‘Me?’
He spits out the straw and saunters over to the old man who resolutely puts the reins into his hands and walks away. Geez. It’s big up close… He scratches his neck and takes a step away from the horse. ‘Ahem… How do you mount?’ VJ looks bewildered around but everyone avoid eye contact.
‘Just put your foot in the stirrup.’ Thomas shows him.
It’s too damn high. VJ grabs the stirrup and pulls. He sneaks a look at Thomas who deftly puts his foot in the stirrup and swings his leg up. Cloud stands patiently without moving while VJ precariously balances on his right leg, stretching the other as high as his slim jeans would let him.
‘Aaarghh…’ He finally succeeds to insert his foot, but doing so loses his balance, falling backwards onto the ground. Swearing he brushes dust from his legs. ‘Fucking horse moved!’ he grumbles as he scrambles to his feet.
Thomas leans forward, a huge smile plastered on his face, ‘You ripped your jeans, VJ.’
‘That’s on purpose, moron.’
‘I guess showing off your ass’s on purpose too?’
‘Shit!’ He stomps off, swearing.
‘Should we wait for you, VJ?’ Tate’s face is impassive.
‘Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll get myself a Harley Davidson later…’
Tate chuckles and pats Cloud, ‘Sometimes it’s not enough with an old horse to school a young rider…’
Cream, “Lil’s” horse, is still quite nervous, so Chuck always stays close, to let Freebird calm the other mare down and to show Lil Bling how to handle her.
‘It’s all about trust. Cream can feel when you’re nervous, and she gets nervous herself. Just try to relax and let the time you spend in the saddle be a kind of bonding experience…’
‘She likes when I talk to her.’
‘Well, do that.’
The countryside around Appaloosa Plains is perfect to go on a trail ride, and they take the mustangs out as often as possible. Taïga listens to Lil Bling rapping about sunshine and birds and scary things in the bushes…
The horses have much to learn, especially about cars and traffic. Every time they have to cross a road the mustangs get a little edgy.
They mostly take it slow, walking and jogging a little, saving the gallop for the paddock.
But the mustangs easily get spooked, and Sweet Thing surprises a totally unaware Taïga by setting off at the sight of the old Ash tree so fast Taïga’s hat blew off!
Chuck is surprised too, ‘I said No gallop!’ but he quickly sees how Taïga unsuccessfully fights the careening horse and spurs Freebird on to catch up with them before they arrive at the steep canyon.
Chuck steers Freebird between Sweet Thing and the dangerous slope, and lets the experienced mare play her part, reassuring the young horse and thus helping Taïga to get Sweet Thing calmed down before causing an accident…
‘You did great! But you have to be prepared for such things to happen, and stop her before she gets going.’
Taïga nods, a little ashamed…
Taïga swirls in front of the mirror, making her light blue dress sweep around her feet. She’s already talked to Loki about prom, and he was OK with her going with Teddy. He said he would probably take Linn. But it’s not Loki who’s on her mind as she critically scrutinizes her image in the mirror.
I wonder if Derek would have asked me or if he would have taken a girl from his class. She bites her lip and chases the thought. But it’s difficult to banish Derek from her mind. I know where he is, so why does it take him so long to get back here? Or maybe it all went wrong and he was caught? An image of a starving Derek chained to a wall in an Egyptian prison flashes through her mind. No news could mean anything… She looks at the alarm clock on the nightstand, soon time to leave.
A discreet knock on the door, and Chase peeks in. ‘The car’s here! And it’s a limo! Can you believe that? We’re going to prom in a stretch limo!’
Taïga holds her arm out to Teddy who’s waiting in the living room, ‘So that’s what you and Thomas have been plotting about!’
Teddy fastens the corsage on her wrist with a smug smile. Thomas is impatient, ‘C’mon! The limo won’t wait forever!’
‘Just a sec!’ Chase is showing off her wrist corsage, happily chatting, ‘Johnny hasn’t seen it yet! Johnny!’
‘Coming!’ Johnny comes out of the kitchen with a good looking blonde woman. Taïga does a double take. What the heck is she doing here?
Not believing her own eyes, Taïga watches Mrs. Darnell sneaking up to Johnny and hugging him from behind, whispering something that makes him lean into her and smile happily. Their eyes meet over Johnny’s shoulder, Oh my gosh! At least she has the decency to blush! Taïga digs her fingernails into her hands so hard it hurts.
Teddy notices her staring at Johnny and Honey, and whispers in her ear, ‘It’s our last night at APYR and I’m sure Derek…’ He clears his throat, ‘… wants us to have fun tonight!’ He doesn’t know the full Derek-Darnell story*, but it’s not difficult to fill in the blanks when it comes to his brother…
Taïga knows he’s right and musters up a brave smile before accepting Teddy’s proffered arm and letting him escort her out to the waiting limousine.
‘Hey! Can you guys give me a lift to school! I’m already late and as I’m the DJ tonight…’
Thomas and Teddy sighs, but accepts Lil Bling in the limo – there would be no music without him anyway…
Almost 7,000 miles* away
The sun rises over Al Simhara International Airport, where Derek has spent the night on a couch. The departure lounge is crowded and noisy. Because of a sandstorm, all planes are delayed and Derek wonders if he’ll be on a flight at all today. He tries to concentrate on the book he’s reading, but his thoughts are wandering and he realizes he’s read several pages without taking in anything of the story.
*11 265 km
The little girl beside him looks wide-eyed at him and shakes her bottle, spraying him with lukewarm milk. Derek sighs and throws the book on the couch beside him. He takes out his cell and tries to call – again – but the heavy static from the storm has made calling impossible for over fifteen hours.
Nobody knows I’m still stuck here. Mom and Dad are having a second honeymoon in their new home, and as I wanted to surprise Teddy and Taiga I didn’t call… Well, I’ll try again later…
He rests his head in his arms and lets his mind wander back to when he first arrived in Egypt a fortnight ago. Getting his dad and mom reunited was charged with emotion. All doubts about his mom not loving his dad anymore vanished when he saw her cradle his dad’s tear struck face in her hands, and he was embarrassed at how they kissed like teenagers! Gross…. And now they’ve gone into hiding with the help of Dwayne’s connections…
Derek can’t believe how lucky he is, to be able to go home again. To start university in the fall. Play football on the Simvard team… Dating Taïga… He bites his lip and suppresses a smile. He will definitely go after her. Not being sure to ever come back again has made him realize how much he wants her…
He shakes his head and picks up his paperback again. Thinking of Taïga is too disturbing, but the annoying background noise makes it hard to concentrate on his book too. He fumbles in his pocket for a chewing gum and his fingers brushes against the picture Cade slipped into his jacket at the airport, an eternity ago. He pulls it out and lets his finger follow the shape of the dark-haired woman’s face. The photograph’s worn and the colors are faded but there’s something about the downturned corners of her mouth and the slight frown that makes her look familiar…
She’s not beautiful, but her features are definitely fascinating… I wonder why Cade put it in my pocket in secret? I have to find him and ask him… Dwayne might have his number or at least know where he usually hangs out…
He flips it over. The ink is faded by age; Tamra Moon, 1958… Searching on the web gave no results, except for the poem. OK, I found out it’s by someone called Mathilde Blind. But that’s about all… I think I’ll ask Thomas to help me out…
He reads the poem again, but he knows it by heart by now. And why this poem? It stirs something in him, just out of reach of his mind…
‘Sim Air flight 853 to Falls Harbor over Ndjamena is now boarding at gate 14.’ The impersonal voice of an announcement gets the departure lounge in a frenzy, ‘Sim Air vol huit cent cinquante-trois pour Falls Harbor par Ndjamena, embarquement immédiat à la porte quatorze…’
Derek pockets the picture and queues with the other passengers at gate 14. He tries his cell again, but still no network…
‘Could you please turn off your mobile, Sir?’
‘Just a second.’ Derek finishes to enter Taïga’s number without looking up. I can’t switch it off now that I’ve finally got a signal!
‘I’m sorry, but I must insist, Sir.’
‘OK.’ He looks up at the pretty air hostess playing for time as the impersonal voicemail greeting drones on, and murmurs quickly into his cell, ‘Wait for me to come home…’
‘Now could you turn that off, Sir, or I must take it from you.’ The hostess frowns at him.
‘OK. OK.’ He turns off the cell and returns it to his pocket. ‘What time is it on the East coast, miss?’
The hostess checks her watch, ‘11 p.m. Sir.’
‘Thank you.’ Strange… That makes it 9 p.m. in Appaloosa Plains so I wonder why she doesn’t answer her phone… She must have forgotten it somewhere again. He smiles to himself and settles comfortably in the large first class chair, courtesy of Hassan Badawi. I can’t wait to see her. We’ll talk. I’ll tell her how I feel and…
‘Excuse me, young man. Could you show me how to recline the chair?’ The old lady next to him peers at him behind steel rimmed glasses. Derek realizes he must have dozed off, but he smiles politely nevertheless and helps the woman.
‘Thank you. You’re most kind. Most young people nowadays don’t care much to help, you know. Especially in those Western countries. In Egypt we are raised to respect our elders. I remember when I first visited my son – he lives in Bridgeport, it’s a very big city on the East Coast – and he…’
Derek reclines his own chair and closes his eyes, tuning out the old woman next to him… She’s dating Loki. But I know she’s attracted to me… She can’t hide it, when we touch it’s like… fire… He smiles to himself again. I’ll make her realize that Loki guy isn’t right for her… He’ll bore her to death… And I’ll have to find the guy she’s promised to and get rid of him… Or we’ll just run away… Somewhere like Isla Paradiso… or Sunlit Tides… She’ll like the South Pacific… I’ll fight for her…
Finally exhaustion gets the better of him and still smiling he dozes off again, lulled to sleep by the slight vibrations of the plane…
There’s a voicemail on her cell waiting when Taïga returns after prom.
Unknown number… Her first impulse is to erase the call but she is too curious. Hesitantly she puts the cell to her ear and a second later her blood rushes to her cheeks and her heart starts to race as a husky voice envelopes her like velvet. Derek. She listens to the short message again and again, letting it fill her with happiness. “Wait for me to come home.” She looks around her room to tell Chase, but she’s still lingering outside with Thomas.
Holding the cell against her heart, she murmurs ‘Thank you thank you thank you…’ to herself. Happily she sets her iPod to ring early so she’ll have time to go for a ride before leaving APYR for good the next day, and then pushes the cell under her pillow so she can feel it vibrate if there would be another message from Derek.
She knows it’s completely selfish of her, but after the first impulse to cry out the news, she now wants to keep it to herself, just a little longer… I
’ll tell Teddy in the morning – he’s probably got the same message anyway… I wonder what he wanted to tell me? … Tomorrow he’ll be here…
Her thoughts are bouncing around her head, but finally she falls asleep with a hand on her cell under the pillow and a faint smile on her lips, listening to the message over and over…
It seems like she had just drifted off to sleep when Chuck and Chase wake her up a couple of hours later…
‘Taïga… Wake up, Taïga.’ Chuck gently touches her shoulder, ‘There’s been an accident…’
Her whole world crumbles as she learns about the plane crash…
Part II – End of Chapter 20